Shia as the ‘Other’ in Pakistan

‘Hazara Shia’s refuse to Bury their Dead’. This was a morbid headline, one would have hoped to hear only once in a lifetime.  Coming to terms with such horrific tragedies is a near impossible task but having to reconcile with the same grotesque violence within less than a month of  is surely a travesty.  One  witnessed with silent tears and an aching numbness the painfully tragic  sight of another hundred Hazara families sitting on Alamdar road for days in February 2013.  Earlier on January 10th, 2013 two bomb blasts targeting the Hazara Shia community killed almost 120 people in a busy marketplace in Quetta.

While such violent incidents are not a novelty for Shias in Pakistan, what was novel was the way in which the protest against these incidents was registered. The Hazara Shias of Quetta who have been systematically and ruthlessly killed for almost a decade, refused to bury their dead and sat alongside with 86 bodies on the streets for three days and nights, through torrential rain and cold weather. Such a heart-wrenching protest, which drew an overwhelming  nationwide response of sympathy from not just from Shia communities but from mainstream civil society, sought to highlight the injustices faced by the community and the lack of state response which can be judged from the fact that none of the perpetrators have ever been arrested or prosecuted or even punished for the incendiary vitriol spewed by such militant groups.


(Translation: ‘I will strengthen all hearts against the Shias to the extent that no Sunni will ever agree to even shake hands with them. They will die their own death, we will not need to kill them anymore.  We will make it difficult for the Shia to even breathe and they will think how can I stay in this city any longer’ Aurangzeb Farooqi, Leader Sipah-Sahaba Pakistan January 13, 2013).


(Translation- Bold Letterhead:  Shias are heretics/ Shias are worthy to be killed (It is a religious duty to kill Shias) – LeJ Balochistan Unit)


( Translation- Bold Print: ‘Any person who has any doubt about  the Shia’s heresy, he is a heretic himself ‘. Fatwa . Sipah Sahaba – Central Information Office document)

In the light of the imploding violence against the Shias and the atrocities taking place in the name of religion, it seems worthwhile to consider  what exactly is wrong with our understanding of the dynamics of Sunni militancy in Pakistan and why no coherent or unified public  response has been witnessed to date. Prevalent analysis on Pakistan continues to insist that the hatred Sunni militant groups bear towards Shia Muslims is fundamentally theological, when in reality it has little to do with theology and everything to do with the politics of the times. Much is consequently being said about the need to accept and overcome religious ‘differences’ among both the sects in Pakistan presently, but the exact nature or the scale of those differences is hardly ever a point of reference in any meaningful discussion. In this sense the very premise of such arguments seems intrinsically flawed, as it portrays the Shia as the ‘other’ with many commentators inadvertently aggregating them with non-Muslims as a ‘minority’. In the present times, when the divisive binary ‘us vs. them’ narratives seems to hold widespread currency, an alienating Shia or Sunni history is definitively projected backwards in time by the religious elite,  of both Sunni and Shia varieties, with a rigid certainty that clearly overlooks and distorts the flexibility and diversity Islam originally offered its followers. Much of early Islamic history has been understood through the accumulation of orthodox perceptions, which were developed only after the formative years of Islam. In this regard, a brief lesson in historycould educate and to perhaps liberate one from ignorant misconceptions about a collective Islamic past, seems to be the need of the time.

Not very many people realize how similar Shi’ism and Sunnism are in theological terms, and the few visible and apparent differences between the two sects are mostly superficial in nature and have clearly more to do with politics and culture than theology. A few theological embellishments on matters regarding inheritance, religious taxes, commerce, and personal status thus distinguish Shia jurisprudence from Sunni law. The various differences that do exist are minor and superficial, but are however upheld assiduously by the religious elite on both sides with an urgency that has more to do with the identity politics of these religious elite and less with any ideological or theosophical constructs. In this sense the Shia ‘other’ are more of a symbolic than a practical reality. Clearly the religious elite on both sides have played a major role in creating divisive Shia or Sunni identities with an excessive emphasis on distinct rituals and symbols to bolster their legitimacy. The Shia political elite unwittingly generated an obdurate narrative of Shi’ism using didactic language and obstreperous titles that seem to present the Prophets family as something exotic and thus made them seem somewhat inaccessible for others outside of such discourse. The Sunni religious elite further deprived the Muslim masses of the narratives of the Ahle Bayt by indulging in regimes of disinformation for the sake of political expediency, such as by falsely equating Shia devotion for the Prophets family as ‘worship’ and heresy. While such malicious rhetoric has not been totally imbibed by the mainstream Sunnis, it seems to have had a palpable influence on the Sunni psyche. In present times therefore, most Sunnis seem to have voluntarily surrendered overt religious affiliation with the Prophet’s family and so it comes as no surprise then when one hears even the most well meaning of commentators describing Imam Hussein  as merely ‘a Shia Imam’ or Karbala as ‘a tragedy for the Shias’ . This is not however to say that such affection does not exist among Sunni Muslims at all, because many continue to publicly show reverence.

Needless to say the religious elite from such orthodoxies, of both the Shia and Sunni variety, have made a major contribution to the current chasm of perceived hostility between the two factions.Most likely because of the large scale persecution Shias have faced in the predominantly Sunni socities that they live in, over the centuries the Shia ulema have been the spokesperson for the Shia community as if all the problems that Shia people face only have theological explanations. The theological aspects of the Shia identity are consequently foregrounded above all other modes of existence such as social and political ones.  This has been the case in Pakistan also, the  ‘Shia community’ has been largely known through its religious scholars and official spokesperson of religio-political organizations. The voices of ordinary Shia people are lost in this arrangement. This is unfortunate since many scholars have shown time and again how  the theology is only a dialogical response to the sociology and anthropology of a society.

So the great contribution that the Hazara community has made to the Shia identity in Pakistan is that it has given it a human face as distinct from the Shia as a religious or political category. It allowed the ordinary Shia people to publicly come forward and articulate themselves in a socio-political way with an identity that is separate from the official narratives of the Shia religious elite.  Even when the political and religious elite insisted upon making deals with the government , telling them to wrap up the protests  , the Hazara Shias questioned the authority of those who were speaking on their behalf and refused to bury their loved ones.  The Quetta tragedy has also inadvertently brought Shia’s from all over the world to speak in one voice. As one lady I met at a protest in front of the Pakistan Consulate said, ‘ In baygunah masoomon kay khoon ki wajah say aaj puri dunya may ya Hussain ka nara lag raha hai‘ ( Today because of the death of these innocents the cry of Ya Hussain is resonating around the world) She was  referring to the innumerable protests and sit-ins for the Quetta Hazaras, taking place in every continent and in ever major city around the world such as London, New York, Sydney, Toronto etc.

Another lesson that can be learnt from the Hazara protests is that such heartfelt acts of non-violent dissent have the capacity to bring Sunni and Shias together unite rather than the contrary, inspite of the regimes of disinformation that have been created between the two sects.   This was  notable from the response to this tragedy gauging from  the conversation in the virtual public sphere and the large number of Pakistani citizens participating in the protests across the country. Indeed all across Pakistan Sunnis from all walks of life, ethnicities and political affiliations were seen shouting ‘Labaik ya Hussain’ along with the Shias.  One could not help but think remorsefully that it took hundreds of  innocent lives in Quetta for Sunni and Shias to come together like this so visibly and forcefully. These protests, initiated by the Hazara community, are a slap across the face of hatred sowing extremist militant groups like Sipah Sahaba and Lashkar e Jhangvi and in a sense the malicious intent of these groups to ‘destroy the Shia’ and ‘indoctirinate all Sunnis’ seems to be inadvertently thwarted by the ordinary people of Pakistan. A Sunni friend at a Lahore protest held a placard saying,’ Aaj sara Pakistan Shia hay…….aao kitney Shia maroo gay‘ ( Today all Pakistanis are Shia…….how many Shias can you kill?). Truly, if all Sunnis and Shias come together as Muslim and overcome petty distinctions made in the name of religion, we might just be able to isolate and outwit such terror and begin to live peacefully once more……..


( Translation: From today onwards I am also a Shia, so fire your bullets )


(Translation- Banner : ‘We forcefully condemn the genocide of our Shia brothers and sisters – Sunni Citizens of Pakistan)

(Images courtesy #WeAreAllHazara#ShiaGenocide @twitter)

One of my related articles ‘Reconsidering the Shia as the Other’ with a detailed historical analysis can be read here

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